The Pete Dye course at French Lick is rated one of the best public golf courses in the country. I was eager to play it as I had not been in this area of the country since my father got lost when I was about ten years old on one of his "father/son" fishing vacations and we passed through there, about 100 miles offline. I will rationalize on his behalf as there were only maps back then and he had five boys in his car.
I wanted to have a look at the course that is heavily advertised in golf magazines and was once on Golf Digest's top 100 list. It is well known that it is one of the longest courses in the USA. The Gold tees are over 8100 yards with a course rating of 80.0. That is not a misprint. The next tees are Black at 7254 (76,2/139), Blue at 6701 (73,3/136), and White at 6115 (70.6/130). There are also two sets of shorter tees. Finally, the two hotels and casinos are very much worth a look after the investment by Mr. Bill Cook to refurbish and restore national historic landmark buildings (he spent $500 million approximately twenty years ago).
I asked for the earliest tee time since I wanted to play the Donald Ross course later that day. I was first told the round would likely take five hours due to its difficulty. Then, when I stopped by the Donald Ross course the night before, missing by 7 minutes a chance to play it at a reduced fee and free up more time for the Pete Dye course, I was told it would take me 4 hours and 15 minutes.
Yet, when I arrived for my 7:40 tee time on May 7, 2019 I saw that the tee sheet was basically empty for the day, probably due to all of the recent rain the previous two months, the difficulty of the course, and the $350 green fee. The green fee includes a cart and is the fee for unlimited golf for the day. I will agree that the $350 is a high fee for this part of America to play a round of golf, but since it includes the cart, a bottle of whisky, a cigar and being a member for the day I thought the price to be very affordable.
Before I begin to describe the day and the course, I would like to point out how friendly the staff is beginning with being greeted when I arrived, the hospitality inside the pro shop, the starter, the staff inside the restaurant and the caddie. They were all wonderful.
I hit it off immediately with my caddie, who was excellent the entire day. He asked me my index and we decided to play the Blue tees at 6701 yards. We laughed our way around the course, playing our first round in 2 hours. After checking with the pro shop next to Tom Taggert’s former mansion which is now the clubhouse, they allowed me to go off the back nine and we played a second round in 1:50 since I already knew the golf course. My caddie wanted me to stay, telling me that his personal record was 84 holes in one day with a visitor from Sweden and he was sure I could beat it since it was not yet even noon. But I informed him that I really wanted to play the Donald Ross course, site of the 1924 PGA won by Walter Hagen. So off I went wondering just how many holes I might have been able to play; possibly 100 given the excellent weather and the lack of players that day. That would have brought the average cost per round below $70 per round – ha.
In reading some of the reviews I can understand their point of view. I think this is a golf course that one might think is too contrived, some holes a bit too similar, as well as overly difficult. I disagree as I enjoyed it and not just because of the laughs with the caddie. I found it to be unique and I found the holes to be sufficiently varied. I suspect Mr. Dye had to move a lot of earth to build the fairways and green sites as well as to provide the proper drainage. The course brought to mind the coastal/oceanside holes at Cape Kidnappers which I had played just ten weeks earlier where many of the holes are located on “fingers” of land with a ribbon of fairway. While there is no ocean to see at the Pete Dye course at French Lick, the views here are beautiful particularly on the eastern side with holes eleven through fifteen. If not for moving earth, nearly every hole would be on a tilt given the overall slope of the land cascading down from the highest point being the clubhouse (former mansion).
Although I have a strong bias favoring links and links-like courses, The Pete Dye course at French Lick shares a commonality in that it is wide open offering expansive views with the trees being at the clubhouse and 50 yards from the boundaries of the course. There are better views here on every hole than on many flat links courses due to the elevation change. When I think of some highly rated courses such as Ballybunion Old or Cruden Bay, I am reminded that there are six holes I considered to be either average or dull. At the Pete Dye course, I did not feel that way about a single hole.
The Pete Dye course is very much worth playing. It is typical Pete Dye, very difficult if you hit bad shots. It is critical that one chooses the right set of tees. I asked my caddie what percent of golfers played the wrong set of tees and he replied about 30%. I asked him what percent of golfers played the 8100 yard tees and he said about 5%. I asked him what percent of golfers had no business playing the Pete Dye course and he replied 80%. I asked him how he thought I did with my tee selection and he replied, "you know your game very well."
There is a theory out there which I have not tried to research that Pete Dye built this course to be his most difficult course as his previous “difficult” courses had been rendered to be easy by professionals. Pete and Alice Dye’s primary residence was at Crooked Stick, which when it was built was both long and considered difficult, yet John Daly tore it apart when winning the PGA. That can also happen at the Ocean course at Kiawah and Harbour Town if the wind is calm. Perhaps it hurt Mr. Dye’s ego, since he is a gifted player himself, to have some of the primary defenses become meaningless on the courses he designed. Some say he was trying to send a message to the USGA to restrict technology both for the ball and the clubs. I have not done the research as to his motive but both points are supported given this is a course of nearly 8100 yards with fairways that narrow for the longer hitters and a few substantial fall-offs on the sides of the fairways.
The views from this golf course are outstanding. You truly feel as though you are on a mountain, although you are only 900 feet above sea level. However, it is the second highest point in Indiana. I thought every hole is good. The routing changes directions nearly every third hole so if there is a windy day you will play it in every way much like Muirfield in Scotland. My favorite holes are 16 and 17. Holes 2, 3, 4, 6, 9, 12 and 18 are also good. I think both nines are equally balanced.
I had perfect conditions, neither wind nor rain. It was sunny the entire time.
Like most Pete Dye courses, on some holes it is punitive if you do not hit the fairway and there are some real dangers lurking near the greens. Yet I found the fairways to be sufficiently wide. As for the commentary that the fairways narrow as you get closer to the green, they usually are as wide as the green and last I checked, there is no “architectural rule” that mandates wider fairways at the green with dedicated chipping areas. I also found there to be adequate areas near the green for a chance for recovery. There were often mounds and false fronts just off the greens but I liked this feature as I felt it added to the texture of the course rather than adding difficulty. Yes, there are a few holes where if one misses the fairway there is a steep slope, but most times one’s ball is easy to find and you have a chance to advance one’s ball a fair distance despite an uneven stance. I hit three shots that led to non-recovery during my two rounds. One was a bad second shot that went bounding down a 80 feet slope where we never found the ball. I actually did not want my caddie to even look for the ball as the climb was very steep. Another bad shot was on the most photographed hole, the 16th which is a long par 3 to a narrow green with water all the way down on the right. On my first round, my caddie didn't know I was already in my downswing as he was still giving me advice on the club selection. We had a good laugh while the ball was in the air making its way to the middle of that pond. I made a three with the second ball.
Maybe it was due to my excellent caddie, but I did not find the greens to be either difficult to read or putt. I had 33 putts on each round avoiding some potential 3 putts but missing many shorter putts. But I also did not have many long putts nor weird putts because the caddie steered me to the right areas of the greens. I do not want to give him too much credit because other than a couple greens that are elevated it is reasonably easy to determine where to land the ball as well as the lesser penal area to miss the green. There is nice contouring and a different shape to most of the greens. Mr. Dye incorporated the rises and valleys very well into the green complexes with some nice smaller contouring just off the greens.
The first hole is a par 4 of 519/465/420 playing downhill and a slight dogleg left. It has an excellent view from the tee as do all of the holes. It plays shorter due to the downhill. There is a really long waste bunker (250 yards?) along the left side between the fairway and a pond and three bunkers scattered down the right. A single bunker is left of the green. I thought it to be a fairly gentle starting hole with a nicely sloped green which was had a chipping/putting option both from the front continuing down the right to behind the green.
The second hole is a level hole par 4 of 413/382/369 with a series of volcano bunkers down the right that seem to share with the third hole. There are smaller bunkers and mounding near the right side of the green. The green has a lovely spine and swale with a right to left tilt.
The third is a very long par 5 of 641/610/554 now playing back the opposite way. It ends in a dogleg left where the longer hitter can try for the green in two as it likely cuts 50-60 yards off the shot. If you miss short of the green you are on the side of a hill. Between the fairway and the green is a low valley as the land falls away. There are no bunkers at the green which is shaped to tempt the longer player to try for it in two but is angled away to the left for most players coming into it with their third. This is rated the most difficult hole on the front nine but if one plays it smart then par is likely.
Four is a long par 3 of 251/211/191 playing basically level although the ground falls away quickly to the left and behind the green. There are three small bunkers front and right and a large one down the left side of the green. The real nasty bunker is the hidden small pot bunker on the left side between the large bunker and the green.
Five is a par 4 of 513/458/397 with twelve bunkers up the right to the green and two on the left. The rough seemed to be highest off the fairway and the fairway looked to be the narrowest on the golf course. The green sits off to the right creating the sense of another dogleg. There is a chipping area left to behind the green which is where one wants to miss. The green is one of the more tilted on the course back to front with the slope of the land and narrows at the back. I liked this hole both visually for the rolling nature of the fairway and for its requirement of two good shots.
The sixth is a par 4 of 513/458/397 that asks for one to find the fairway again, now heading in another direction. There are three bunkers on the right that are raised and numerous (I lost count) on the left. The left side falls off a bit although recovery is possible. The fairway here widens before the green but Mr. Dye both gives and takes away as he adds a center bunker in this wider section. Multiple small bunkers are on the left side of the green which has spines in it and is nicely shaped. The views from this hole are incredible as the green seems to sit on a shelf offering an infinity view of the forest behind.
Seven is a par 5 of 611/534/500 so a shorter hole from the Blue tees. This felt to me like the lowest point on the course but I may not be right about that. There are two bunkers either side for the tee shot, two more on the left for the approach shot and five at the green which sits above you. While the tee shot landing area is somewhat narrow, the remainder of the hole felt wide to me.
Eight is a par 3 of 213/183/170 so mid-length from my tees. Again, there is a turn in direction and one is now heading back towards the clubhouse. There is a long carry required here over the seven smaller bunkers on the right side. The proper line is down the left side where a single bunker awaits. Between the tee and the bunkers is a valley falling off down the right. It is a wonderful view of the clubhouse sitting atop Mount Airie.
Nine is a par 4 of 532/469/410 so another mid-length hole from my tees hitting to a crescent shaped fairway as the hole doglegs to the right. Down the right side is a long waste area filled with multiple bunkers that I lost track of how many. On the left side of the fairway there are three bunkers. The bigger hitter will try to carry as far down the right side as they dare. Near the green are six bunkers. This is one of my favorite greens on the course with various levels, depressions, and slants to it. There is a feeling of another infinity green here although there are trees on the left behind the green.
It is a bit of walk/ride going nearly halfway back the ninth to get to the tenth tee going the opposite direction which is a shorter par 4 of 391/378/350. This hole has a green which sits on the shelf with a false front on the right side. I felt this to be the most fun hole on the course.
Eleven offers options for the tee shot. One can either climb up the hill to have an unobstructed view of this par 4 of 456/429/394 or play the tees below left of this peak which leaves a semi-blind shot to the fairway. There are two fairway bunkers flanking the fairway out to one’s right where the fairway then narrows considerably before widening to the green which has a fall-off to its right. There is a significant valley to the right side of the fairway. The green is sort of a plateau green. The views are forever from this green although the best view on the golf course itself is atop the hill.
You go down the side of the hill to arrive at twelve which is a par 4 of 529/430/388 so very reasonable from the Blue tees but really long from those Gold tees. There are only four bunkers on this hole. This hole sits 40 feet higher than an original hole built years ago by Tom Bendelow (he built over 600 golf courses in the USA). There is a large wrap-around bunker on the left side of the green with continued great views from the green.
You now move again in a different direction. Thirteen is a par 3 of 208/181/162 with a green that has a redan feel to it as the green is angled off to the left and is sloped substantially front right to left back. It is a huge green with a substantial swale to clear to get to the back half.
Fourteen is a shorter par 5 for this course of 575/504 for both. The fairway is split for the approach shot with the higher fairway being on the left offering the better view of the green. You can go right but you will have a blind third shot or run into rough with no view of the green. This hole only has bunkers near the green including a nasty, hidden pot bunker in the front middle. The green slopes back to front with some subtle undulations in it.
Moving in another different direction, fifteen is meant to be another fun hole but one I struggled on as the shortest par 4 of 383/359/344. It plays uphill so add 20 yards to it. The green sits off to the left and I hit both of my tee shots down the left side which found the long bunker the first round and was below it on the second round. From there even though it was not a long recovery shot I misjudged the angle and went too far to the right but at least I avoided the two bunkers on the front left. This is the a “breather” hole before the big challenge of the final three holes.
Sixteen is a long par 3 of 301/220/183 so mid-length from my tees. The green is hard against the pond on the right side and it is narrow with two fronting bunkers on the left side and a small depression before the smallish green. If one lacks courage, hit a wedge short and try to get the second close. I loved the visual and challenge of the hole.
Seventeen moves away from the clubhouse in another direction as a long par 4 of 518/465/431 and one gets a real sense of the “finger” visual from the tee. This par 4 has bunkers right and left with two longer ones on the right side ending with four small ones right of the green. I like the green which sits off to the right as the shaping is not overly done for the length of the hole. I was able both times to get up and down from the right side of the green to save par.
Turning around for the final time, the eighteenth is another true risk-reward hole as a par 5 of 657/626/589 so it is long from all three tees. The hole is a question mark in shape where there is a long waste bunker down the right side and three bunkers scattered down the left. The real question is does one hit a shorter club before the turn of the dogleg left or does one try to carry over the valley to get closer to the green. From the turn in the dogleg there are three bunkers basically saying to not try to get close. At the green there are two bunkers fronting and two also on both sides. The green is tilted back down the valley with a “t-like” shape to it. Adding to the length is that the hole plays uphill to the turn and then slightly uphill from there. I loved the strategy of the hole recognizing that if one does not hit the fairway with the tee shot, they still have to make a strategic decision. It is an awesome finish.
The Pete Dye course seems to have everything: friendliness, unobstructed views, terrific views, holes that move in all directions, holes of various lengths, superb conditioning, decision-making, nicely contoured greens, holes that don’t look or feel the same, different shapes to the greens, and nearer the greens interesting mounding and fall-offs yet offering a chance of recovery. I like it a lot yet I understand those who do not like the difficulty and “manufactured” feel to it. I am amazed a course could even be built here, yet alone one that is this good. I highly recommend it. It was a lot of fun and very interesting. I am so glad they chose Mr. Dye to design it as no other top designer likely would have tried.
Date: April 10, 2020